Charter Schools and the Ones Left Behind

12 Oct

My dad and I are in southern Wisconsin this weekend, visiting my grandmother for her 87th birthday. The impromptu family reunion has been a rewarding one, as I’ve been reunited with a cousin I hadn’t seen in about 15 years. My dad was the only one of my grandmother’s children to go to college, and without belaboring the details, let’s just say I grew up in an entirely different world from my cousin. It wasn’t the smoothest of meetings, especially since neither of us is all that extroverted, but we shared some laughs and found some common ground. I’m damn proud of that, and I wish I’d found a way to say more.

What on earth does this have to do with education? It’s simple. It made me wonder about her education, and even more importantly, about her 13-year-old son, whom she had while she was still in high school. I’ve never met the kid; he lives in Colorado, and my cousin doesn’t have custody over him. But I care about him. Who’s looking out for kids like him?

On the drive down, I found myself reading a Duluth Reader Weekly column under the tagline “Dish with Trish” advocating the selling of Duluth Central to the Edison charter school system for a new high school. Her experience in Duluth public schools was the polar opposite of mine, and she refuses to acknowledge them as a contributor to her education. She rushed her children out of ISD 709 and into Edison. Her argument is a sloppy one that relies on silly cherry-picked examples about kids holding open doors for her; it lacks anything resembling nuance. But that doesn’t take away from the sincerity of her perceptions. She clearly thinks Edison offers a better future for her kids, and for her, that is all that matters.

The argument in favor of charter schools is a pretty sound one. “Charter schools create competition, and competition is good.” That makes complete sense. Institutions that never face any competition can easily become stagnant or mediocre. But here’s the thing: charter school populations are entirely self-selected. Everyone there is there because they want to be there. No wonder people gush about the community and engaged families at charter schools: describing them that way is practically tautological. If you are an engaged parent, it also makes complete sense that you’d want your child in an environment entirely surrounded by other children of such parents. Add in the ugly class sizes in ISD 709, and it’s a slam dunk. What’s not to like?

However, this nation has made a commitment to universal public education. Unless you want to go and throw that out, you’re going to have to contend with the fact that there are quite a few people out there for whom education is not a priority. Perhaps their parents are unwilling or unable to support kids to the extent they need; perhaps it’s a conscious rejection, and most likely it’s a complex web of socioeconomic and family and psychological factors. It’s unfortunate in many ways, but that fact can’t be wished away. These kids are still going to go to school, and it’s going to fall upon the public schools to educate them. Because of that, public school test scores will always face some burdens, teachers will always be frustrated by certain kids, and while these kids are certainly not doomed to be disruptive or “bad,” they have an unfortunate tendency to become the face of public schools. Public schools will never be able to compete with charter schools on a level playing field. Ever.

If you pull the engaged families and students out of the public schools, it leaves the public schools in a downward spiral that’s hard to escape. If parents never think their kids are going to public schools, they don’t bother to support school levies, and the funding dries up. Parent volunteers disappear, and booster clubs that give private support to public school programs go the way of the dodo. Class sizes get even bigger, even more kids are pulled out, forcing even more cuts, leaving behind those kids who are all too often left behind by society. I’m not saying this is destiny; there are some exceptional individuals who come out of even the worst schools, and committed leadership can turn around struggling schools. But this is the exception, not the norm. Throwing up one’s hands and praying some good leaders will come along isn’t a winning strategy.

You would think that most liberal-leaning people respect the need to support the entire community, and to fight for public schools. (I won’t pretend to know Trish’s political allegiances, but aside from a few stray anarchists, social libertarians, and Harry Welty, I don’t think the Reader has ever run anything by anyone who isn’t somewhere on the leftward end of the political spectrum.) Duluth’s liberalism isn’t without its downsides (as with any political ideology), but it has allowed for relatively generous support for public institutions over the years. And yet, with our public schools going through a troubled time, the reaction of so many community-oriented people has not been to fight for that community, but to flee in search of something else.

I don’t say this in spite or judgment. It’s only human nature to care deeply about our children before anyone else, and I’m not among the cosmopolitan idealists who think we can or should get rid of that. When I try to weigh the moral implications of something, I often use my hypothetical future children as my test: would I let my children go here or do that? I certainly wouldn’t send them to one of the miserable inner-city schools I saw in Washington DC just to make a political point. (For new readers, I went to college in DC before coming home to the city I love most.) Duluth, however, isn’t there yet. Some perspective is in order: Duluth can still be rescued, if enough people pitch in and resist the atomizing tendencies that drive us all to pursue our own short-term personal interests at the expense of the communal good.

The problem with Duluth is that it’s small. Build a charter school and take 500 kids out of the Washington DC school district, and DCPS will keep on running (to the extent that it runs…) with fairly stable funding; there might be some ripple effects, but it isn’t going to reorder the entire situation. Take 500 kids out of a district that only has maybe 2800 high school students, and you have a potentially huge disruption. Duluth is small enough that the old cliché used by everyone from Marxists to Buddhists to Rand Paul (in very different contexts)—“we are all interconnected”—really is true. Charter school parents may not like to hear this, but in Duluth, it’s true: your choices affect everyone else. The good news is that, in a smaller community, a movement to change the course doesn’t take a whole lot of people. We can make this happen.

In a community of this size, it’s impossible to imagine a sustainable social fabric without public schools. To their credit, Duluth public schools have programs for the kids who aren’t on the fast track on college that teach them skills that will get them employed after their school days are over. I don’t know how well these programs work, but at least the effort is there, and that is essential. Students who aren’t going to college need to know that they aren’t failures, and that there is a group of people who care about their futures. By keeping everyone in the same building, we recognize that interconnectedness, even if they’re tracked into very different sorts of classes. Tracking can make sure that the highest achievers can get the courses they need to go to the best colleges (it worked for me), and the kids in the middle can find a happy medium, too. Money and support flows in to everyone, and not just the select few who already have strong support networks. If you get enough stakeholders on hand to fight the good fight, the class sizes will fall to normal levels, and these schools can reach their very real potential.

You might call that an idealistic stance, but it’s an ideal rooted in acceptance of reality. The people in public schools are going to be our neighbors. Some of them might even be our relatives. If you’re a liberal, the need here should be obvious, Red Plan rancor be damned: there is no other way forward if you really do support an equitable society. If you’re a conservative, giving these kids a chance can keep them off the welfare rolls, and creates at least an avenue to welcome their families into a community that will allow them to escape the pathologies of the past. Of course it won’t work out for everyone. Human nature is what it is, and people will make mistakes or not listen or face obstacles that simply cannot be overcome. But it is not destiny. And public education, for all its faults, is, from a societal standpoint, the only cost-effective way to keep it from being destiny.

Yes, this requires some active parenting. It requires a bit more engagement, perhaps, as people band together to fight for their kids and confront the bloated bureaucracy and inane love-and-happy-thinking education-speak that plague many school systems. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for everyone that you share this community with, and for your own kids, too. Putting one’s children in a school that offers the whole gamut of students also broadens their horizons in ways that no self-selected charter school ever could. There is more to “diversity” than race or faith, after all. This is the world we live in. The empathy I feel for people from different backgrounds from mine does not come from the various service projects I’ve done among people from disadvantaged communities. It comes from living among them.

All of that said, I support the sale of the old Central High School to Edison. I can wish that all of the Edison parents are going to read my piece and change their minds, but I’m not delusional. Edison High is going to happen. I don’t like it one bit, but holding up some ideal in a desperate attempt to keep one’s hands off the inevitable is only going to hurt the district in the long run. Selling Central to Edison gives ISD 709 some chance to control the terms of the sale and cap enrollment, and I doubt it’s going to get a better offer for that financial black hole atop the hill. At the very least, Harry Welty’s lease idea could offer some sort of compromise. (Full disclosure: Harry and I did lunch after he read my last column on ISD 709.)

Antagonizing the charter school people even more certainly isn’t going to win them back, either. This is our future we’re talking about. We’re all in this together, even if we have some disagreements about methods. I hope Duluthians can come together and work some of these things out, perhaps over a drink or three. (I’d be happy to foot the bill, even on my underemployed recent college grad’s salary.) This town is unique because it has such a distinct communal identity; with enough effort, it has the potential to be exceptional. Getting there is going to require that people get out of their comfort zones, though. We’ll see if Duluth can pull it off.

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2 Responses to “Charter Schools and the Ones Left Behind”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. White Flight and Charters « lincolndemocrat.com - October 14, 2013

    […] don’t fully agree with all of Karl’s observations on Waltman’s column but they bear reading if you wish to make sense of the new ISD 709 Edison […]

  2. A Follow-Up on a Charter High School in Duluth | A Patient Cycle - October 18, 2013

    […] My piece on the possibility of a Duluth Edison charter high school was unusually punchy for this blog, and in turn, it provoked some good reactions. I spend a lot of time in detached analysis; part of this is just who I am, and part of this is because I do try to transcend normal political categories so that I’m not pigeonholed as some tradition-loving conservative or government-loving commie. But when the guard does come down (and when it does, it always seems to involve Duluth East High School), taking a hard stand on something often does generate a good response. So here are some of the responses, and please, if you have any thoughts, send them along in a comment or through other means. I love the dialogue. […]

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